United, Liverpool fans see red over US owners
Fans of Manchester United and Liverpool, the Premier League's fiercest rivals, are linked in a common cause: anger at American owners who have turned English soccer's most successful clubs into the most indebted.
While a tight match Sunday kept the anti-American chants to a minimum during Manchester United's 2-1 victory over Liverpool, green-and-gold protest scarves were everywhere, except the directors' seating, at 76,000-seat Old Trafford stadium.
The protesters have even won government support, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown complaining that in soccer ``debt levels have been at a leverage level that is too high.''
But United club secretary Ken Ramsden dismissed protests by both sets of fans, telling The Associated Press: ``It's all about the football played on the field, not in the board rooms.''
Liverpool fans have been directing bile at Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. almost since the day their leveraged takeover was completed three years ago. The Americans have ignored the hostility to remain in charge at Anfield, even though their stakes will be diluted by an external injection of at least $150 million urgently required to reduce the team's $356 million debt burden.
Hicks also owns the Dallas Stars and is in the process of selling the Texas Rangers. Gillett is the former owner of the Montreal Canadiens.
Liverpool's cash constraints and corresponding lack of investment in players have been brought into sharp focus this season by the dramatic downturn in the team's fortunes. Runners-up in the Premier League and Champions League quarterfinalists last season, Rafa Benitez's side is fifth domestically and crashed out of Europe's elite competition at the group stage.
How Liverpool fans envy the success - if not the debt - of Man United.
The Red Devils have won three straight league titles - matching Liverpool's record haul of 18 in May - while remaining on course for another and a third straight European final.
But the Glazer family's 2005 takeover saw one of the world's most profitable clubs suddenly burdened by debt that currently stands at $1.06 billion - more than the total of Germany's top 36 clubs.
After initial grumbles, fan dissent lay largely dormant until January.
Concern was voiced last year that only a quarter of the $120 million windfall from Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Real Madrid had been reinvested.
But the spark that reignited the anger was a 320-page prospectus sent in January to prospective buyers of bonds in United that laid bare the club's financial predicament.
The seven-year bond issue did raise $757 million to replace long-term financing and reduce debts to hedge funds, but it also helped dissenting fans' mobilize against the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
``The reason for the lull in the protests was that the initial campaign was to prevent a takeover and it did appear that the battle was lost,'' said Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST). ``People felt there was nothing they could immediately do about it. We kept the organization going, but it wasn't growing.
``But when the prospectus came out it made people sit up. It told the story we'd be telling prior - and since takeover - about what the Glazers would do with the financial management.''
MUST's membership has soared to 142,760 from 36,000 since January's bond issue - thanks in part to Internet strategy devised by Blue State Digital, which also helped rally online support behind Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008.
But the visual symbol of the protests is the simple scarf. In January, MUST began producing them in green-and-gold - the colors of Newton Heath, the club's original incarnation - rather than the usual red and black.
Supply can barely match demand and they dominate the stands at Old Trafford.
``The fans wear them because they love this club,'' defender Patrice Evra said. ``They have their reasons for doing it and we don't think that they're crazy. They'd like things to change.''
Even former United star David Beckham wore one of the scarves as he left the field following AC Milan's match here earlier this month.
No player has spoken out since Evra earlier this month.
Manager Alex Ferguson, though, is alert to the dangers of a mass uprising.
``Some of our fans are clearly unhappy with our financial position, but we mustn't allow the situation to become divisive,'' Ferguson said. ``I could see our opponents rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of watching us fall out among ourselves if we don't think carefully about what we are doing.''
The fans also are trying to collectively buy United. The plan to emulate European champion Barcelona is gathering pace, unlike moves for a fan-led buyout of Liverpool, which have floundered since being unveiled two years ago.
The takeover bid being formed in Manchester under the ``Red Knights'' banner involves MUST and financiers that include Jim O'Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs.
Japanese investment bank Nomura has been engaged to lead the search to raise around $1.2 billion from supporters, with the aim of submitting a bid by the summer.
While United chief executive David Gill has defiantly insisted that the club is not for sale, the Glazers are yet to break five years of silence.